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Despite Poverty Today, Latinos May Define Rules in Aging America

Posted: Dec 26, 2012

Photo: Paula and Manuel Cisneros (Yolanda Gonzalez Gomez/HuffPost Voces)

DALLAS, Texas--For Paula and Manuel Cisneros, every day is a challenge of survival. At 73, he cuts and bag cactus to sell on the street to pay for basic expenses and she is looking for a job. A peaceful retirement for them just looks like a very distant dream.

"Aging is very easy, but to do it with dignity and wellness is not that easy," said Manuel, who came from Mexico as an undocumented immigrant in 1972, worked as a construction worker and after a dozen years became a United States citizen.

The Mexican immigrant couple is barely makes ends meet with a $900 monthly Social Security check. They also receive assistance from the Dallas public housing authority that pays half of their apartment rent.

Cactus and Computers

Lately, the Cisneroses, who and have no savings, have lacked money they need to pay for their telephone service or more food. For that reason, over a year ago they found a way to get more income by selling cinnamon, pepper and other spices. Now they only sell fresh cactus—nopales used in Mexican cooking--cleaned, cut and put in bags of one or two dollars each.

“We use such an alternative because no one employs us,” they said. The reasons their opportunities for getting by financially include being old, lacking of English proficiency, having little education—and being Mexican.

"In this country you must work very hard, as I did, but I don’t feel I got enough benefits for my old age or perhaps did not understand the proper way to do it," said Manuel, who is considering taking computer classes to see if he can get a job.

"The sale of cactus has become indispensable for our budget, it’s how we gain $5 or $ 10 for gasoline now and then, for our vehicle payments and insurance and the cost of our medicines," said Paula, 63.

Despite suffering from diabetes and a back problem that makes it hard to walk, Paula is confident they will find employment, either for her secretarial skills or experience as an employee at Blockbuster video, where she was recognizd for her efficiency several years ago.

Paula and Manuel not only belong to the largest and fastest-growing minority group in the U.S.--and the one with the highest life expectancy--but also to the demographic group that has the largest disparities in education, health and wealth.

In fact, the Cisneroses are among the approximately 50 percent of Latino seniors over age 65 living in or near poverty levels, according to a report from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Like millions of Hispanic immigrants aging in this country, the Cisneroses are a part of the large generation of seniors and aging baby boomers who could influence the priorities and national health policies, social programs and aging norms in the coming years, as some academic experts claim.

U.S., Mexico Growing Old Together

"After the presidential election this year, it was clear how important Latinos are as voters in the U.S., which should result in more attention and funding for research on the implications of diversity and aging in the social and political practice," said Fernando Torres-Gil, director of the Center for Policy Research on Aging at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA).

Torres-Gil, a former head of the U.S. Administration on Aging (1993-97), said the United States and Mexico are growing old together, including such factors as diversity and scensence. Because the the two nations are so close, he said, they must join forces to analyze all aspects of past and present migration to understand the needs of the next generation of elders.

Another dilemma coming for the United States, Torres-Gil said in an interview, is that undocumented migration from Mexico country currently reaches almost zero levels. So U.S. policymakers have address, "Who is going to replace the workforce that has supported the Social Security program with taxes they pay but not receive?”

He explained, for instance, that the contribution of undocumented immigrants in payroll taxes for Social Security at work accumulates in the program’s trust fund. But because they cannot apply when they need help, a substantial proportion of those workers end up subsidizing benefits for non-Hispanic employees.

In America, Torres-Gil said, "We are becoming minority and old very quickly, and we do not know what the impact is and how we will cope, but changes are needed."

Among the 47 million Hispanics in the United States, currently only 6 percent are over 65, compared with nearly 14 percent for the full U.S. population. But that percentatge will triple to 18 percent of the senior population by 2050.

By mid-century, estimates show that 30 percent of the U.S. population will be of Hispanic origin, if they keep growing at the current rate. And the level may rise even higher.

"Mexico is aging, too, and our diversity and future are strongly related with this country. Therefore we can seek solutions beyond our borders and commit to work together to discuss new policies and programs," he noted.

Aging, Diversity Converging

For now, though, the confluence of diversity and aging is already happening, and we cannot wait longer to explore new measures to deal with it, Torres-Gil said.

The combination of today’s generation of Hispanic seniors and Latino boomers, who are now starting to reach age 67, could provide the U.S. some keys for understanding the nation’s changing needs.

As Latinos showed in the November election their political power may well influence policies in many areas, from immigration reform, perhaps, to future new policies for aging in America.

Yolanda Gonzalez Gomez wrote this article as part of the Metlife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship program, a project of the Gerontological Society of America and New America Media. It originally appeared in Spanish in HuffPost Voces 

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